Women, Work and Health: The Match-Girls Strike of 1888

On 5th July 1888, approximately 1400 female workers walked out of Bryant and May’s match making factory in Bow, East London, in protest over low pay and poor working conditions. Each woman and girl worked 12- to 14-hour days in hot and unventilated rooms to make and pack match boxes in order to earn an average piece rate wage of around 8 shillings per week; skilled male labourers could expect around 40 shillings. Prompted by the perceived unfair dismissal of one of the workers, one woman reported that the strike ‘just went like tinder, one girl began, and the rest said ‘yes’ so out we all went’. Match production stopped for 16 days. The strike finally ended after the workers accepted a number of concessions offered by the company. These concessions included the abolition of the system of fining workers for being late, deductions from wages to cover cost of paste and brushes and the recognition of the Union of Women Match Makers by management.A sepia picture of Bryant and May 'match girls'.

The match girls’ strike, as the 16 day walk out of women workers famously became known, shaped the future of Britain’s labour movement. As the first strike by unskilled women workers in Britain, this moment was hugely significant in the rise of New Unionism of the late 1880s and 1890s. It was the prelude to a wave of strikes that swept the country, the most famous of which was the Great Dock Strike of 1889. Workers across Britain were no longer willing to accept their poor working conditions and began to demand more from their employers. This wave of strike action resulted in the unionization of tens of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled workers and sowed the seeds of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Moreover, the Union of Women Match Makers had a long legacy; it was one of only a few unions that survived the turbulent years after the peak of New Unionism and was still going strong into the 1930s.

Yet, the strike was also important for highlighting and ultimately improving the dangerous working conditions that Bryant and May’s management concessions did not address. Match making was considered part of the ‘dangerous trades’ under the Factory and Workshops Acts due to the fact that highly toxic white phosphorous paste was used to make the hugely popular Lucifer ‘strike anywhere’ matches. Renewed media attention on Bryant and May following the strike highlighted cases of necrosis of the jaw – ‘phossy jaw’ – among both male and female match workers resulting from exposure to the white phosphorous. The resulting government inquiry revealed the horrors of the disease. One testimony stated:

A drawing depicting a woman suffering from necrosis of the jaw (colloquially known as 'phossy jaw'.‘In a certain town I dug out cases of men and women, hidden away in the slums – piteous cases they were. One woman had completely lost her lower jaw, a young girl at earlier stages was constantly in great pain while her suppurating jaw bone was gradually decaying.’

This spectre of an identifiable industrial disease was a powerful weapon not only in the political struggles around working conditions, but also in debates over the degree to which the state should regulate the twenty five match making companies across Britain. State regulations of the late 1890s enhanced worker hygiene through the provision of soap, water and free toothbrushes and toothpaste; improved factory ventilation to prevent phosphorous fumes spreading all over the factory, as well as the separation of dangerous manufacturing processes; and provided medical examinations of anyone with reported toothache. It was a legal requirement for all match factories to employ a resident dentist by 1900 and Bryant and May employed one from 1898. Yet, some match making firms pushed back against new regulation. The underreporting of cases of workers with phossy jaw was rife in the Bryant and May factory. There was also a strong suspicion of collusion between medical practitioners and employers to conceal phossy jaw cases and evidence of at least one case of company intimidation by threats of lost income. Mrs Lean, whose son had died of phosphorous necrosis, was told ‘if I called another doctor in, the pay (ie the sick pay from the firm of 29 shillings a week) would be stopped.’ Prohibiting the use phosphorous in match making production would have decisively ended phossy jaw outbreaks, but such action was quickly dismissed because ‘strike anywhere’ matches were so popular and formed a vital part of Britain national and global trade. Phossy jaw only disappeared as an industrial disease once phosphorous was outlawed in 1910, but the effects of the discussions and events of the preceding decades, and indeed those who took part in them, should not be underestimated.

Boxes of Bryant and May matches.Historical debate has centred on the role of the female workers of Bryant and May in initiating and sustaining strike action and in shaping the fight for better working conditions. Early historiography portrayed women as passive victims, who were only led to action by the campaigns of Annie Besant and other leading middle-class Fabians of the period. Such work largely relied on Besant’s autobiography and documents from the firm, which of course present a rather narrow view of the story. More recent historical work, however, has argued that the workers themselves were central to securing better rights and conditions and has attempted to reconstruct their own experiences from scant evidence. Securing the historical legacy of these women is ongoing, not least by their ancestors. More on Sarah Chapman, one of the match girls, can be found on the blog of the East End Women’s Museum: https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/2018/3/13/sarah-chapman-matchgirl-strike-leader-and-tuc-delegate

Dr Claire Jones


Barbara Harrison, ‘Not Only the Dangerous Trades:’ Women’s Works and Health in Britain, 1880-1914, (Taylor Francis, 1996).

Louise Raw, Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History (Bloombury, 2011)

The ‘Women’s War’, 1929

In the closing months of 1929 the women of Nigeria rose up against British colonialism in a coordinated effort that has subsequently become known as the ‘Women’s War’. Rioting against the power of British-imposed Warrant Chiefs, women from the Igbo ethnic community congregated in their thousands, re-mobilising the traditional practice of ‘sitting on a man’ as a form of anti-colonial and anti-corruption collective action. Ostensibly a revolt against the imposition of a tax specific to Nigerian women, whose marketplace activities allowed them a level of financial independence from their husbands at the same time as supporting their families, the causes of the revolt can be traced back to the imposition of Indirect Rule in Nigeria under Lord Lugard in 1914. The Women’s War was a co-ordinated strategic rejection of British colonialism, and led to reforms in the way the colony was ruled, as well as the abolition of the women’s tax itself.

Indirect Rule and British Colonialism

 Lord Frederick Lugard was famously the architect of indirect rule in Nigeria, a policy by which the British handpicked local African elites who were friendly to colonial rule as ‘Warrant Chiefs’, responsible for the day-to-day running of the colony, and in particular the administering of the law, the organisation of labour, and the levying of taxes. The appointment of the Warrant Chiefs was not only an attempt to have ‘colonialism on the cheap’ on the part of the British, but also to impose British notions of colonial hierarchy – including changes to the gender relations of the people. While in Igbo culture, women and men worked collectively, the British imposed systems of forced labour and taxation that pushed women into what they considered their rightful place: the domestic sphere. When they attempted to tax women’s economic activities (the selling of palm-oil) in 1929, rioting and protest ensued.

‘Sitting on a man’

The women of the ‘Aba Women’s Riots’ (as they were known by the British) cleverly fused traditional forms of protest with collective action against the colonial state. They embarrassed the local Warrant Chiefs by ‘sitting on’ them – a ritual action involving dance, lewd gestures, songs and noise. At the same time, though, they attacked Native Court buildings, cut down telegraph wires, and damaged banks, post offices and factories – all seen as manifestations of white colonial oppression. Thousands of women were involved, and many more suffered from the reaction of the British, who burnt down villages as collective punishment, and fired into crowds of protesting women. In one incident at Opobo on 16th December eighteen women died at the hands of colonial troops, leading to questions in Parliament back in Britain.

Collective Action

Female protesters involved in the Women’s War were savvy and determined. They wore palm leaves as a link to the economic roots of their discontent, they mobilised traditional practices of protest through marching, singing and dance, and they disrupted the administrative mechanisms of the colonial state. Despite attempts in the British press to put this down to female ‘hysteria’, the Women’s War is an example of collective and organised female political and economic action. The British introduced reforms to the Warrant Chief system in an attempt to curb corruption, and abolished the women’s tax itself. Women also became involved in administration, but continued their action when necessary in future disputes such as the Tax Protests of 1938 and the Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s.

Women and Political Activism

‘A feature of the disturbances was that women were the actual aggressors’, noted a shocked correspondent for The Times in January 1930. ‘The trouble was of a nature and extent unprecedented in Nigeria’, continued the correspondent for Nigeria in August of that year. ‘In a country were the women throughout the centuries have remained in subjection to the men, this was essentially a women’s movement, organised, developed, and carried out by the women of the country, without either the help or permission of their menfolk, though probably with their tacit sympathy.’ The Commission sent to investigate the revolt, and the reactions of British troops in particular, came to many conclusions. Perhaps the most interesting for us in the current context is this: ‘More attention… should be paid to the political influence of women.’

Dr. Emily Manktelow

South East Hub Conference 2018: Call for Papers

Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders and Collaborators as historical concepts: Redundant labels, useful categorisations or somewhere in between?

19th June 2018, Grimond Building, University of Kent, Canterbury

There’s a big fashion for categorising bystanders, perpetrators and so on, why? Everyone collaborated!

– Interview with a Holocaust survivor, January 2018

The twentieth century saw the concepts ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’ entering not only historical study but public discourse surrounding instances of war, atrocity and genocide. However, these terms also have a broader application outside of the twentieth century, in contexts of earlier imperialism, religious iconography and revolution. Despite this near universal application, there has been surprisingly little critical evaluation of the conceptual utility of the aforementioned terms amongst scholars. Problems associated with the dearth of engagement in our understanding and usage of these words include reductionist tendencies that can obscure nuance and disregard the experiences of individuals whose stories are not so easily classified. This conference aims to provide a forum for postgraduate students and early career researchers to begin to facilitate vital discussion as to the future of these often problematic concepts.

Applications are sought from postgraduates and early career scholars, focusing on the following themes relating to the application of these terms within different historical contexts, including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Gendered connotations
  • Public memory, commemoration and the mass media
  • Imagery and visual culture
  • Occupations during wartime
  • Everyday violence
  • Law, courts and society
  • Revolutionary mentalities and culture

Submissions with an interdisciplinary approach are particularly encouraged.

Please send a 250 word abstract for a 20-30 minute paper and a brief biographical statement to Kate Docking and Ellis Spicer via southeasthub2018@outlook.com by 16th March 2018.

Keynote Speaker: Professor Tim Cole, University of Bristol

Sponsored by CHASE DTP and the School of History, University of Kent



History Research Festival

Wednesday 17th January 2018, 1-6pm

Darwin Conference Centre Suite

The Festival aims bring together colleagues and students from the School of History to have informal conversations about the collective experiences of ‘doing history’ through a variety of panel debates.

1 – 2pm Challenging source materials and methods (chair: Dr Claire Jones)

Dr Emily Mantelow; Dr Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin; Dr Juliette Pattinson; Professor Ulf Schmidt

2 – 3pm Collaborative Working (chair: Dr Emma Purce)

Dr Rebekah Higgitt; Dr Jan Loop; Professor Kenneth Fincham

3pm – Tea and coffee

3 – 4pm Interdisciplinary Perspectives (chair: Dr Aske Brock)

Dr Ben Marsh; Dr Karen Jones; Dr Emma Hanna; Dr Phil Slavin

4 – 5pm Writing and Publishing (chair: Professor Gaynor Johnson)

Dr Barbara Bombi; Professor Charlotte Sleigh; Professor Grayson Ditchfield

5 – 6pm Wine reception

Click here to return to the School of History website.

Autumn 2017 School of History Research Seminar series

This year, our research seminars will take place on alternating Wednesdays (weeks 1,3,5,7,9, & 11) in term time at 4PM in Eliot Lecture Theatre 2 (ELT2). We also have an excellent line-up of post-graduate seminars that will take place at 5:15PM in Rutherford Seminar Room 7 (RS7) on the other Wednesdays (weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, & 12). Please see the attached schedule for a full list of speakers.

In week 1 (at 4PM on Wednesday 27 September), we are delighted to welcome Dr Suzanna Ivanič, a new lecturer in Early Modern History here at the University of Kent.

The title of her paper is Locating Religion in the Homes of Seventeenth-Century Prague Burghers.

A recent focus on religion in the home has provided fertile new evidence about lived religion – the beliefs, practices and identities of the faithful in an everyday context – but, what if we interrogate the relationship between the home and religion more thoroughly? How does religion change as it crosses the threshold? Is ‘domestic devotion’ really more unorthodox and individualistic? What do we mean by ‘domesticating’ religion? It is now well-established that not only Protestants, but also Catholics, practised religion in their homes in early modern Europe. By analysing inventories and objects from the multiconfessional setting of Prague across the seventeenth century, this paper explores the differences in domestic religious practice between confessions, how domestic space enabled unique aspects of devotion (‘private’ forms or particular rituals focusing on doors and beds, for example), and how objects that came into the home could either subvert or reinforce orthodoxy and orthopraxy within this extra-ecclesiastical space.

As ever, a drinks reception will follow this seminar. Please see the attached poster for more information.

The ‘British’ churches 1603-1707: from dynastic union to Anglo-Scottish union

On 22 June 2017 the University of Kent’s School of History and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies will be hosting an international conference ‘The ‘British’ churches 1603-1707: from dynastic union to Anglo-Scottish union‘.

The two-day conference, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the launching of the Five Articles of Perth by James VI & I in Scotland in 1617, is held in collaboration with Canterbury Christ Church University and its Centre for Kent History and Heritage.

All conference sessions will take place in Keynes College on the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus and aim to bring together scholars with an interest in religion across the British Isles during the 17th century.

The Conference will also include the official launch party for Dr Leonie James’s new book – ‘This Great Firebrand’: William Laud and Scotland 1617-45 (Boydell Press, 2017).

Further information about the Conference including a programme and registration details can be found on its dedicated webpage.

Dr Higgitt presents the Transit of Venus 1874 digital collection

Dr Rebekah Higgitt introduces a digitised collection papers, photographs and drawings transit-of-venus-thumbnailrelating to the history of astronomy, now available at Cambridge Digital Library. Funded by the University of Kent and the British Society for the History of Science, her project has made items from the archive of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and a private collection available to the public. They focus on the British expeditions organised to observe the 1874 transit of Venus, particularly the one made to the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i). The collection includes photographs of the observing instruments, huts and sites; details of the equipment and provisions taken overseas; official and private journals and a truly unique set of caricature drawings that follow the “Life and Adventures” of the Hawai’i observers.

To see the digitised papers click here.

British Human Rights Organizations & Soviet Dissent, 1965-1985

Congratulations to our Research Support Officer and Honorary Research Fellow Dr Mark Hurst, whose book ‘British Human Rights Organizations & Soviet Dissent, 1965-1985‘ was released by Bloomsbury today!9781472522344 (002)

The book explores the British response to Soviet human rights violation, drawing on Dr Hurst’s extensive archival work and interviews with key individuals from the period.

In the latter half of the 20th century, a number of dissidents engaged in a series of campaigns against the Soviet authorities and as a result were subjected to an array of cruel and violent punishments.

A collection of like-minded activists in Britain campaigned on their behalf, and formed a variety of organizations to publicise their plight. British Human Rights Organizations and Soviet Dissent, 1965-1985 examines the efforts of these activists, exploring how influential their activism was in shaping the wider public awareness of Soviet human rights violations in the context of the Cold War.

Find out more here.

Dr Ben Marsh appears on BBC World Service

Dr Ben Marsh featured on the BBC World Service’s History Hour this week, commenting on a story recalling the journey of a group of pioneers called The Donner Party, who were attempting to reach California by wagon when they were trapped by snow in the winter of 1846. Some were driven to cannibalism to survive, and their gruesome story has become a legend of the American West.

Listen again to the programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03bgxzt